Garden Circkles:

Sustainable, eco-friendly and organic gardening tips and techniques.

See our Local Circkles pages for Farmer's Markets in your state. (Sorry, you must be a Circkles member.)

See our Green Circkles Page for tips and information on living a more sustainable lifestyle at home.

Heirloom Seed Suppliers: We have ordered from these suppliers and find them to be very reputable and honest.

Baker Creek carries one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century, including many Asian and European varieties. The company has become a tool to promote and preserve our agricultural and culinary heritage. Gardeners can request a free 212-page color catalog or order online.

Seed Savers Exchange's collections contain heirloom and open-pollinated (OP) varieties. Heirlooms are OPs with a long history of being cultivated and saved within a family or group. They have evolved by natural or human selection over time.

Annie's Heirloom Seeds: Heirloom seeds produce vegetable varieties that have been around for 50 years or more. These are the vegetables your grandmother grew. These are the vegetables that were around before the huge agrobusinesses that create most of the "food" on store shelves today.


Beneficial Insects: Damselflies.

Related to dragonflies, obviously, Damselflies are weak fliers and will stick close to water so if you have a backyard pond, water garden or live close to a lake you may see them. They will eat almost any insect and are very adept at picking aphids off plants. They lay their eggs in water, so if you want to keep them around, consider a backyard pond close to your garden.


Natural Insect Control: Aphids.

No doubt about it, aphids are a pain in the neck, especially if they get into your greenhouse. Once inside, natural predetors can't get at them, so the only alternative is to put ladybugs in your greenhouse or use sprays. Just knocking aphids off with a strong blast of water doesn't really cut it, so we listed some alternatives below for homemade sprays to use on r aphids.

Tomato Leaf Spray:
Tomato plants, as members of the nightshade family, contain toxic compounds called alkaloids in their leaves. When the leaves of tomato plants are chopped, they release their alkaloids. When the alkaloids are suspended and diluted with water, they make an easy to use spray that is toxic to aphids, but still safe around plants and humans.

To make tomato leaf spray, simply soak one to two cups of chopped tomato leaves in two cups of warm water. Let it steep overnight. Strain the leaves out of the liquid using cheesecloth or a fine strainer. Add another one to two cups of water to the liquid and add it to a spray bottle.
Spray the stems and foliage of the infested plant with the spray, paying special attention to the undersides of leaves, where aphids most commonly congregate.

Caution: While this spray is very safe for humans, some people are allergic to members of the nightshade family. If you are one of them, use care in making and applying this spray.

Garlic Oil Spray:
This works against aphids but may also kill ladybugs and other beneficials. Using it in a greenhouse would be fine if you don't have any beneficial insects you have relocated there. To make garlic oil spray, mince or finely chop three to four cloves of garlic, and add them to two teaspoons of mineral oil. Let this mixture sit for 24 hours. Strain out the garlic pieces, and add the remaining liquid to one pint of water. Add one teaspoon of liquid dish soap. This mixture can be refrigerated and used as needed. When you need to spray, use two tablespoons of the mixture added to one pint of water in a spray bottle. Shake up before spraying to mix the oil with the water.
To use your garlic oil spray, first test by spraying an inconspicuous part of the plant to see if your mixture harms it at all. If there are no signs of yellowing or other leaf damage after a day or two, it is safe to use. If there is leaf damage, dilute the mixture with more water and try the test again.

Lemon Spray:
This natural aphid pesticide works as an instant remedy, killing the aphids on contact. To make this natural pesticide, grate the rind of a large lemon. Boil it in enough water to fill a garden spray bottle. Let the mixture sit overnight. Strain the liquid into the garden spray bottle. Spray the aphids and larvae directly.

Vinegar Spray:
While vinegar sprays work well against many types of insect infestations, some delicate plants may be killed by it as well. Start with a diluted solution of 10% vinegar to 90% water and spray on just a couple leaves of the infected plant and wait approximately 3-4 days to see if the leaf on the plant dies. If so, try the lemon or tomato leaf sprays instead.

Heirloom Seeds and Plants:

'Tis the time of year to order your seeds. Right after Christmas, my mail box starts getting inundated with seed catalogs, but after finding out a couple years ago that almost every seed supplier gets their seeds from Monsanto, I refuse to support them anymore. (For more information on why to boycott Monsanto, see The Incorrigible Nonconformist blog.) So the last few years I have only purchased seeds from heirloom seed companies.

It was in the 1970s that hybrid seeds began to proliferate in the commercial seed trade, but most heirloom plants are much older, almost pre-historic. Some agriculturists claim that the heirloom cultivar must be over 100 years old, others say 50 years. Some prefer the date of 1945, which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies.

To be designated as an heirloom, the seed and plants they are from must not be genetically altered or cross-pollinated in any way. The commercial agricultural giant, Monsanto - who makes the Roundup products now under such scrutiny - has been making it impossible for gardeners and small organic farmers to save their own seeds from year to year by only supplying seeds that produce sterile plant varieties to seed suppliers and requiring farmers to use only their seeds with their pesticides. Monsanto has gone so far as to sue any nearby farmers whose plants may be accidentally wind pollinated by Monsanto's plants. (See the sidebar below on Monsanto vs Farmers.) Burpee, Jung's, Gurney's, Henry Fields, all the major conventional seed suppliers get the majority of their seed from Monsanto, which means it only produces sterile plants or hybrids. Even some organic seed supply sources such as Johnny's get their non-organic supplies from Monsanto. If you want truly ethical, unaltered, non-engineered, organic seed nowadays, you have to look for heirloom.

Just the way Monsanto is trying to monopolize and exploit small farmers is reason enough to stop supporting them and start supporting heirloom suppliers, but there are many other good reasons, such as the fact that heirlooms come from some very ancient, almost extinct varieties: the truer, tastier, hardier varieties before commercial horticulturists starting messing with Mother Nature and ruined the flavor and hardiness of many plants by cross pollinating and genetic engineering. Typically, heirlooms have adapted over many years to whatever climate and soil they have grown in. Due to their natural genetics, they are often resistant to local pests, diseases, and extremes of weather making them invaluable to local growers. All heirlooms are open-pollinated (OP), meaning they are pollinated through natural means, and offspring are true to the parent plant, a characteristic that distinguishes OPs from hybrids. Hybrids do not remain true from generation to generation after the initial cross between two parent plants, so if you save seed from a hybrid plant, you may very we'll not get what you expect from it the next season. I saved seed from a small Patty Pan squash one year and the next year when I planted them, I ended up with some mutant squash the size of a pumpkin that tasted horrible.

Each variety of heirlooms is genetically distinct, having evolved within its own ecological niche over thousands of years. Plant breeders use heirlooms and OPs to breed insect, disease, and drought tolerance into their crops, so when an original or heirloom plant variety disappears, its potential to aid us in the future is lost forever. The future of our agricultural success depends on being able to grow different varieties. What would happen if a particular insect or disease develops a liking to the only species of corn commercial producers now grow? They will be left with no other varieties that will be tolerant to diseases and insects. Exclusive agriculture - only growing and propagating one species of plant - is a recipe for disaster and what most large commercial agricultural enterprises are now practicing. This very dangerous practice may leave us with no crops at all in the future that are disease or insect hardy. This is a fact of nature, but one commercial growers continue to ignore.

The future does not look so optimistic for backyard gardeners either. Take Brandywine tomatoes for instance: they are notably the ugliest tomato, but there is no tomato on the market with more flavor and it's getting increasingly difficult to find Brandywine seed anywhere including mail order, however, many vintage Brandywine seeds can be found in heirloom catalogs and websites. Brandywines require a long growing season and lots of room because they are in-determinants - meaning they do not stop growing once they reach a particular size but will keep on growing taller and taller until something kills them like frost - something the average home gardener does not want due to space issues, which is why most conventional seed catalogs don't even offer them anymore.
Corn is another plant that is so much better in an heirloom variety because it's probably the most genetically altered plant there is in commercial agricultural operations, and as such, has lost a great deal of its taste and vigor because of it.

Heirlooms seeds have been steadily growing in popularity over the last 10 years, and because of this, the heirloom suppliers are now able to keep increasing the number of varieties and types of heirlooms they can offer. When I first started looking into heirlooms, the selection was pretty limited, but they continue to grow every year thanks to the new found interest in them and support.

Baker Creek carries one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century, including many Asian and European varieties. The company has become a tool to promote and preserve our agricultural and culinary heritage. Our company and seeds have been featured in The New York Times, The Associated Press, Oprah Magazine, Martha Stewart, and many others. Gardeners can request a free 212-page color catalog that now mails to 350,000 gardeners nationally.
Jere Gettle always had a passion for growing things, and at age 3 he planted his first garden. Ever since that day, he wanted to be involved in the seed industry. So at the age of 17, he printed the first small Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog in 1998. The company has grown to offer 1450 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs—the largest selection of heirloom varieties in the U.S.A.

"Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend.  We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations.  For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.  The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats..." as Jere from Baker Creek put it.

Seed Savers Exchange has been promoting the preservation and utilization of heirloom varieties for 37 years. Working with their members, farmers, and gardeners to ensure that unique varieties are not lost forever, SSE encourages "participatory preservation" through membership in the Seed Savers Exchange. Each year thousands of seed varieties are exchanged among backyard gardeners and preservationists through the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook.
Seed Savers Exchange's collections contain heirloom and open-pollinated (OP) varieties.

The importance of preserving heirlooms is a no-brainer if you know anything about biology, horticulture, gardening, farming or botany. Without deliberate efforts to save varieties plants before they disappear, the global community will be vulnerable to calamity should a new disease or disaster wipe out the limited selective crops of commercial growing operations, and it's just a matter of time before this happens. Not only do we need to insure the future of our food supply, but to lose the more tasteful, hardy and vibrant species of plants would be a gardener's tragedy.

Photos from top: 1.) Baker's Creek Heirloom Seed packets. 2.) Brandywine tomato plants are the most obnoxious and unruly garden inhabitants and will take over an entire greenhouse. 3.) Corn is one of the most heavily sprayed crops so growing your own or buying organic is the only healthy way to eat it. 4.) A Brandywine tomato will never win any best-looking vegetable contests with their scars and uneven lumpy shapes, but their flavor can't be beat. Just goes to show, you can't judge a vegetable by it's looks.


Eco Garden Design:

These are glass bottles that have been buried neck down in dirt to create steps and the spaces in between filled in with play sand. You can use this technique for accent steps, stepping stones in areas you want to draw interest to etc. However, we have one word of warning any time people use glass bottles for accents around the yard. Make absolutely sure if you live in a warm, dry climate that the glass will not get too hot from the sun and start a nearby plant or grass on fire. We recommend only using this technique in a shady area or in a cool, wet climate to be on the safe side. It is a nice way to recycle bottles or cans though. Getting the bottoms of all the bottles level with each other will be the tricky part. Try using a board long enough to span the entire width of a row of bottles. Set it on the row and while looking at the edge of the board at ground level, you will see any major gaps in height between bottles. Personally, I would use short bottles or jars and bury them in sand. Sand is much easier to level and will prevent grass and weeds from growing up between the bottles as long as it's at least an inch deep.

This is a much safer idea than the glass bottles above. Using stones or mosaic tile laid out in creative designs creates a very clever and long lasting attractive patio feature. Of course, colors are somewhat limited, since stones only come in so many colors, but this is an impressive idea for an outdoor sitting area of any kind. The stones used in this photo are small. You could certainly use larger, smooth river rocks, to achieve a similar result depending on your patience factor. Draw out your design in advance on a computer if possible and use it as a template or a visual reference for the design you want. Getting a design this intricate to scale is the biggest challenge.

When digging out the area for your site, dig the hole 1 inch deeper than the depth of the rocks you will be using to allow for an inch of sand to be used for the base. The sand base will make it easy to set up the rocks in your design before you secure them with concrete mortar. The sand will also prevent frost from cracking the mortar and ruining your design in years to come. Use plastic or metal garden edging around the perimeter to create a nice straight exterior edge that can be removed if you like when your mortar has set up. If you choose to leave the edging in place, which would be wise to help hold things together, make sure the edges are going to be level with the top of your rocks so as not to catch a lawn mower blade etc. The top of the form will serve as a guide for leveling the mosaic, so it must be at the desired finished level. 

January 2013
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